Writing about standards-driven education reform in her Releasing the Imagination, Maxine Greene explains:
“The wilderness has many aspects, of course; the demons have many faces. What is happening makes me wish, more and more desperately, for authentic dialogue among educators. It is time our own voices are heard with greater clarity, the voices of those who engage with the young in their concreteness and particularity. Children’s and teachers’ stories and journals are breaking through classroom depersonalization. But this change has not broken through into the public space, where we teachers are very seldom asked to testify and are seldom inclined to speak voluntarily for ourselves. . . .Our discussions of standards and curriculum frameworks and outcomes still have not touched seriously upon the matters of our purposes as a society: upon what it means to educate live persons, to empower the young not simply to make a living and contribute to the nation’s economic welfare but to live and, along with others, remake their own worlds.” (p. 170)
And this was during the first decade or so of the current education reform era begun in 1983 with A Nation at Risk. Instead of heeding this warning from Greene, our public and political discourse about education reform has increased calls for standardizing students and continued to marginalize and silence teachers with demands for educators to be objective, nonpolitical, de-unionized, and ultimately obedient.
Simply put, standardized students along with silenced teachers is an un-American education agenda.
Formal education is a pathway to adulthood and autonomy, but learning is an essential human behavior, especially for everyone who embraces freedom and empowerment.
For more than a century, debates about the quality of and needed reform to U.S. public education have been central to our political and public discourse. During the past thirty years, those debates have been primarily focused on accountability driven by standards and testing. The results of three decades of fifty separate experiments in accountability have landed us all in 2011 facing some of the most heated and divisive claims, policies, and protests ever connected with public education.
We persist in calling for higher standards and greater accountability, despite the evidence that this process has never worked. At the center of the continually flawed pursuit of accountability-driven education reform are two prominent errors—(1) ignoring out-of-school factors, primarily related to poverty, as the overwhelming influences on educational attainment and school quality, and (2) forging ahead with standardization instead of seeking a diversity of educational paths for every child.
Education reform discussions tend to fail primarily because they focus solely on in-school reforms, clinging to an idealized view that schools alone can transform society. I want here to focus also on in-school reforms, but with a caveat—U.S. public education will never fulfill its promise as a central institution of a free people if we do not also address social inequities. As Martin Luther King Jr. boldly claimed in 1967, “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”
Now, with that established, let’s consider shifting away from a standardization approach to reform and toward a diversity approach to reform by considering the relationship in the U.S. between academics and athletics.
Children learn many lessons not directly taught in the classroom. One of the most powerful lessons students experience is the wink-wink-nod-nod environment surrounding what we have labeled “extracurricular activities” as they compare to the so-called “real world” outside of school—one of the most prominent being athletics.
A few years ago in my introductory education course, I taught a student from England who also played on the university soccer team. One day he told me he found the American attitude toward sports baffling since athletics and academics were not artificially connected in his homeland as they are here through academic requirements for students to play scholastic sports.
As a point of logic, no real connection exists between a young person’s literacy ability or participation in a required ELA class and that same child’s ability to play and access to athletics. We have created a false connection that, in effect, blackmails children into seat time, credentialing, and tolerating academics as a ticket to the athletic field or court.
Many countries—some of which we hold up as ideal education systems—do not link schools and athletics, preferring club sports instead.
We should seriously reconsider academic requirements that are so disconnected from many children’s interest that we have to badger and entice them into compliance. Since the Committee of Ten in the 1890s and throughout the twentieth century, we have wrestled with student apathy and inordinate drop-out rates—all signs that there lacks some perceived value in the traditional and formal education we are offering—but we persist in redesigning the same model over and over, a model that is bureaucratic and standardized.
And we are apt to blame the students themselves, seeking ways to reshape them, to standardize them. Just as we are increasingly de-professionalizing teachers-removing their professional autonomy-and simultaneously also blaming them for educational failures.
But that “real world” mentioned above is not standard at all. In fact, many people spend their lives in professions that are connected, for example, to athletics—coaches, professional athletes, physical education teachers, health and exercise science professors, trainers, physical therapists, and many more. And the same can be said for music, art, theater, and all of those fields we label “extracurricular” and thus outside the accountability and standardization process-those things we do not measure in testing.
And athletes, like artists and actors, can never be accurately evaluated by a standardized test, but we persist with reducing the aspects of education we claim to be most important (literacy and numeracy) to tests decade after decade, again as a central element in our tunnel vision aimed at standardization.
Free and empowered people are not standard, however. Life is not standard, and ultimately, standard is not even a valuable goal or quality when applied to humans or learning-although it is manageable and standard matches our manic faith in efficiency.
Yes, standard is manageable, and here may be the most damning aspect of our pursuit of standardization—Are we more concerned that our children are compliant, that our future workforce is compliant, than being educated, empowered, and even happy?
And is the rise in teacher bashing not more evidence of a call for compliance, silence, and the perpetuation of the exact status quo those in power claim to be confronting?
As long as we focus on standardized paths to adulthood, the answer to both is yes.
The education reform addressing in-school factors that could result in more students succeeding and fewer children choosing to drop-out to avoid the drudgery they associate with formal schooling would be a paradigm shift away from standardization and toward diversity. As Freire argues:
“If studying were not almost always a burden [emphasis in original] to us, if reading were not a bitter obligation, if, on the contrary, studying and reading were sources of pleasure and happiness as well as sources of the knowledge we need to better move about the world, we would have indexes that were more indicative of the quality of our education.” (p. 45)
In short, accountability approaches to education reform are marketing compliance as standards. Demanding that teachers be objective and nonpolitical is yet further proof of the need to silence educators in order to pursue the standardization of America’s children.
We should not be pursuing standardization since we have a century of evidence that it doesn’t work—and logic shows that standard doesn’t match our ideals as a free people—but we should be pursuing challenging opportunities for every child, which in no way stops us from creating a universal public education system that honors and embraces diverse paths to adulthood and autonomy for all children who enter the doorways of our schools.
Privileged adults of this world live diverse and autonomous lives outside of school. The current education reform movement appears more concerned with securing the diverse lives of those privileged than acknowledging the right to an autonomous and diverse life for all children in a society claiming to be free.
Standardization is dehumanizing-and ultimately un-American.